Tonight is the night for the most important soccer game on Canadian soil in years — the MLS Cup final between Seattle Sounders and the host Toronto FC.
Seeing the pundits gauge the fan reaction has been interesting. I read this piece in the Guardian that basically treated MLS as if it were fighting for relevance in Canada! Then there’s this piece at SB Nation which has a very upbeat assessment.
My own assessment leans more toward that latter article, but it still really depends on whether you live in a big city or not. Soccer interest is highest in the biggest urban centres, it seems (and I can personally vouch for Toronto where interest in soccer was very strong long before MLS arrived). Once you get outside the big cities and into the smaller communities and rural areas, interest drops off dramatically in favour of football and especially hockey. Honestly, the level of interest in, and coverage of, hockey in this country is insane. It’s out of proportion to pretty much the entire rest of the world, really.
Still, soccer interest has been growing. The people most worried about the inroads soccer is making seem to be the CFL football fans. That is supposed to be the number two sports league in the country behind the NHL, but the baseball Toronto Blue Jays have been cleaning the CFL’s clock for two years and now this league has MLS to worry about as well.
The CFL fans look at the attendance levels for MLS soccer, which ran ahead of the CFL in all three of the markets MLS is in: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Then there were the TV ratings: 1.4 million for the second Toronto-Montreal Eastern Conference finals game, a week after drawing a million viewers for the first game. Those were better than what the CFL got most of the season.
But what really has the CFL supporters freaking is that the MLS Cup final at BMO Field sold out in something like three minutes, while the CFL had no end of problems selling out the Grey Cup. So the CFL fans are panicked this is the beginning of the end of their sport and their league.
I will be very interested in seeing the reaction in the country if Toronto FC does pull off the championship tonight. An MLS Cup victory could well push soccer to new heights of popularity in Canada.